Livestock: The highlands are becoming home to fewer yak herders each year according to records with the livestock department.

While the yak population has remained almost constant since 2012, yak-herding households have declined annually by 1.4 percent between 2012 and 2015.

Transhumant yak herding exists in 11 dzongkhags with 993 yak herding households and 38,222 yaks as of 2015. There were 39,543 yaks in 2013.

The farmers gathered at the recent Royal Highland Festival in Laya said that herding yaks is becoming increasingly difficult.

Pema Drakpa, a yak herder from Joenkhar, Trashigang said an increasing number of his herd  are falling prey to wild dogs and other predators.

“Being within the protected area (Sakteng wildlife sanctuary), there are a lot of predators and we have no means to keep them away from our domestic animals,” Pema Drakpa said.

Another highlander, Lobzang Dema from Shingphey, Trashiyangtse has 150 yaks. She has fewer neighbours herding in the area.

“One of the main problems is lack of helping hands, it’s very difficult for the three of us to handle the yaks,” she said.

There are other teething problems. Increasing access to economic and livelihood diversification opportunities in lowland areas, enrolment of youths in schools, and hardship of transhumant herding collectively contributes to reduction of yak herding households according to livestock officials.

Like most people from her gewog, Om, 37, from Neylu, Laya gewog in Gasa, sold about 30 yaks to herders from Lunana. More than half the gewog has sold their yaks and depend on cordyceps and horses today.

“We can’t look after them any more,” she said. Om and her family have been earning a good income from cordyceps collection for sometime until recently. The harvests for the past two years have been disappointing.

“We can earn enough from horses,” she said. A household with 10 horses can earn at least about Nu 0.2 million a month during the tourist season.

Wildlife predation of the stock is another reason discouraging the herders from continuing the predominant occupation of the highlanders in the 11 dzongkhags.

Wangchuk, a yak herder from Lungu village in Laya gewog loses more than 10 yaks a year to wild predators.

“It’s inevitable living with a large herd, as it’s difficult to protect them all,” he said. Wangchuk has 50 yaks and he is the only person looking after them.

The challenge of transhumant livestock herding is further exacerbated by erratic weather patterns and restrictive management of tshamdros, said livestock officials.

Yaks are found throughout the Himalayan region of south and central Asia as far north as Mongolia and Russia.

Rangeland resources and transhumant livestock herding are key elements that support the livelihood of Highlanders. They have capitalised on resources in isolated areas and transformed it into economic opportunities.

Although herders are generally perceived as elements that conflict with conservation efforts, on the contrary they have been the stewards of rangeland and its resources for ages, livestock officials said.

Seasonal migration of yaks facilitates effective management and use of rangeland forages, protection of watersheds, preservation of spiritual abodes and religious sites, among others.

Besides they have also been instrumental in preserving unique culture and tradition that evolved through their existence, livestock officials said.

Considering the sublime contributions of highlanders and increasing access of highlanders to markets, it is crucial to integrate highlanders to the mainstream development.

“Sporadic attempts have been made in the past through projects but it lacked continuity after the projects complete their terms,” Chief Livestock Officer of the livestock research and extension division, Naiten Wangchuk said.

Highland development is one of the priorities for the livestock department in the 11th Plan. The department has supported Gasa dzongkhag’s initiative to host the first Royal Highland festival in Laya recently and invested about Nu 2 million.

Livestock officials said that catering basic support services on education, health, communication are not enough and more has be done for highlanders to be integrated as primary stakeholders in the tourism service sector mainly in mountain trekking.

“The highlanders today earn mostly from porterage.They could earn more with farm houses or guest houses, among other things,” the chief livestock officer said.

The scenic landscape of rangelands and valleys richness in biodiversity, majesty of yaks, premium quality of natural products collectively exhibits immense potential to diversify the livelihood of highlanders through tourism and market economy.

This potential could be further enhanced by capitalising on technologies to enhance farming efficiencies and marketing competitiveness.

The RHF is a platform to convene and interact amongst stakeholders to gain better insight of problems and opportunities, assess potential of capitalising on technologies to address challenges and enhance farming efficiencies, revive tradition and culture that are long lost or on the verge of being lost and update enabling policies and guidelines to facilitate highlanders to evolve and coexist with other communities in the country.

More than 100 farmers from Bumthang, Gasa, Haa, Lhuentse, Paro, Thimphu, Trongsa, Trashigang, Trashiyangtse, and Wangdue exhibited various livestock products at the three-day festival located above 4,000 metres above sea level.

The festival will be an annual event.

Tshering Palden | Laya